Safety in the Mountains
ADVANCE PLANNINGBefore setting out on a backpacking or canoeing
trip into the mountains, do your homework. Become familiar with the maps of
the area and learn to use a compass. Consider taking a short first-aid course
to prepare for emergencies. Plan your trip in advance, let others know where
you are going and when you expect to return, and travel with a companion.
- EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIESPrepare a list of essentials, including
- WATER. Carry one or more unbreakable bottles of fresh water.
Consider taking also a simple water-treatment system for emergency water
- FOOD. Carry enough food for the duration of the trip, plus extra
for the unexpected. Include quick-energy items such as trail mix (gorp).
- COMPASS AND MAPS. A good map allows for exploration of areas
which otherwise might not be attempted. If lost without a map of the area,
use the compass to walk in a straight line in the direction of a known
landmark, such as a road.
- FIRST-AID SUPPLIES. Carry a basic first-aid kit containing bandages,
tape, aspirin, moleskin, disinfectant or antiseptic, analgesic tablets,
a small mirror, and any personal medicines, as well as sunscreen, lip
protection, sunglasses, and other supplies appropriate to the season and
- FLASHLIGHT. A day outing may last longer than expected. Carry
a reliable flashlight and an extra bulb and batteries.
- POCKET KNIFE. A multipurpose knife is essential.
- WATERPROOF MATCHES AND/OR LIGHTER. A fire for signaling, warmth,
or cooking food may become necessary because of injury, delay, isolation,
or sudden weather change.
- SPACE BLANKET. This compact, lightweight material with a reflective
side which helps to hold in body heat can be obtained at most sporting
goods stores. It also can be used as a lean-to in emergencies.
- TWINE OR FISH LINE. Twenty or 30 feet of twine or fishline and
several safety pins can be useful for many types of emergencies or for
repair to equipment or clothing.
- CLOTHING AND RAINWEAR. Always prepare for the possibility of
sudden weather change due to rain, snow, and wind storms. At a minimum,
a lightweight, water-repellent windbreaker is recommended. A pair of gloveswool
or pile recommendedand head protection provide additional barriers
to heat loss when cold. Dressing in layers of clothing suitable to weather
conditions allows you to adjust for temperature changes more easily.
Wool will warm even when wet. Select shoes or boots, tents, sleeping bags, and
other equipment to match your activity and the worst-case conditions you might
expect to encounter.
- RESCUE TEAMSFor your security, be advised that many mountain
counties have a search and rescue team with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. In
an emergency, pile up enough wood and light a fire for warmth or for a signal
to a plane or helicopter passing overhead. While waiting for help, get under
an overhanging rock if possible, and if cold, use whatever cover is availableeven
mounds of dry leaves. If possible, send a companion for help. Contact the
sheriff's office or any Forest Service personnel.
- GIARDIAYears ago, one could safely drink from any stream in
the mountains. In the last several decades, however, a protozoan parasite,
giardia, has spoiled the purity of natural streams worldwide. Not even Alaska,
Guam, and Colorado are safe. Unfortunately, the disease is difficult and expensive
to cure. The parasite, spread by human feces, has been picked up by many mammals,
such as beaver and deer, which in turn contaminate surface water. Only spring
water is safe. The cysts of giardia are destroyed by prolonged boiling of
water; by the application of iodine; or by the use of small, light, filtering
devices available at outdoor supply stores. Another solution is simply to
carry water in unbreakable containers.
- HYPOTHERMIAPerhaps the greatest real danger in the outdoors
is the threat of death by hypothermia, or a prolonged lowering of body temperature.
To prevent hypothermia, stay dry. Carry rain gear. Wet clothes wick away body
heat and lead to rapid chilling. Swimming a few minutes too long in an icy
mountain stream may produce hypothermia, even in summerespecially if
combined with smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. A hiking companion who
talks or walks slowly for no apparent reason may be experiencing hypothermia.
To produce body heat, keep exercising, build a fire, drink hot liquids, and
use a sleeping bag.
- ROCKS AND MOSSProbably more people are injured, or even killed,
by slipping on wet or moss-covered rocks than by all of the snakes, bears,
hornets, and other causes combined. Wet rocks, especially if covered with
a thin moss, can be the equivalent of stepping on ice. Use a walking stick,
wear shoes with gripping soles, and exercise extreme care. Stay away from
the heads of waterfalls; several people have slipped on them and fallen to
- INSECTSFew places in the world are as free of insects and
pests as is north Georgia. Mosquitos and deer flies are nearly absent. In
early spring, blackflies may be a temporary annoyance. The most common is
the tiny "no-see-um," called "sandfly" on the coast. It
can be troublesome in still and moist weather. Carry repellent. Check for
and remove any ticks promptly.
- CLOUDBURSTSViolent rainstorms, called "cloudbursts"
by mountaineers, are frightening. Take shelter under cliffs if possible. Do
not stand under isolated or very tall trees, or on ridges or mountaintops,
where lightening frequently strikes. Most sudden downpours are over quickly
and pose no danger other than getting soaked. If, however, you anticipate
fording a mountain river such as the Chattooga or Cooper Creek, keep your
eye on water levels. Streams can rise suddenly and cut you off, or force you
to swim across and be subject to possible hypothermia.
- BEARSBears will always run, unless you stumble closely on
a mother with cubs. Don't leave enticing foods around. If ever confronted,
stop and slowly back away. Make lots of noise. You will be lucky to glimpse
a bear in 10 years of hiking in the Georgia mountains.
- HUNTING SEASONSA far greater danger than bears is to be mistaken
for a deer or turkey during the short but intensive hunting seasons. Check
to see if there is a hunt in progress in a wildlife management area where
you anticipate hiking. As with bears, whistle and shout at intervals. Wearing
bright colors is advisable.
- YELLOW JACKETSRemarkably, yellow jacketsa ground-dwelling
waspare probably the only injurious creatures that one will encounter
in the mountains. If you hear or see more than one yellow and black "bee"
buzzing around your feet, you have probably stumbled upon a nest. Move rapidly
away. Usually 50 feet is adequate if you move fast. Do not fear yellow jackets
or other speciesjust be ready to move quickly. Remember that a stung
horse can make a sudden leap. Carefully examine the entire area around a tree
where any animal is tied. It may be difficult to release an animal in panic
state. When bushwhacking away from trails, shorts are not advisable for many
reasons, including greenbriers.
- POISONOUS SNAKESOne can easily hike 10 years in the mountains
without seeing a poisonous snake. It is a good idea to talk to local "old
timers" if you are exploring trail-less terrain. Our timber rattlesnake
is one of the most inoffensive and calm of the world's venomous reptiles.
Many do not rattle but lie quietly "hoping" they will be passed
by unseen (and unmolested). Be cautious and respectful, but not afraid. Simply
take care where hands and feet are placed, especially in rocky places and
near logs. A walking stick is helpful for getting through thick overgrowth.
Never walk at night without a flashlight. In fall and spring, snakes crawl
to and from and concentrate around communal dens where they hibernate during
the cold months. By the first serious frost, most snakes are underground.
Like all animals, an occasional snake will be irritablepossibly due
to illness, overheating, or shedding of its skin, which obscures its visionand
rattle or appear aggressive.
Timber rattlers come in both yellow and black colorations. Copperheads, the
only other potentially dangerous snakes in the mountains, are more difficult
to see in the leaves. Fortunately, they are more rarely encountered in the higher
In serious snake-bite cases, call the National Poison Center toll-free at 800-222-1222.
In summary, plan ahead so that you are wellequipped and prepared to deal with
the expected, as well as the unexpected. This will not only enhance your enjoyment
of the outing by lending peace of mind; it may also save lives.
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